Friday, April 15, 2011

Busan e-FM Week 15: Lunar New Year

About 'Open Mike in Busan'


This week’s subject is Lunar New Year. We don’t use a lunar calendar in Western countries, so when I came here it was new to me in some ways, although I had to adjust to the notion of lunar years a long time before.


When I arrived for my first day of studying Computer Science at university I ended up joining the wrong queue – I nearly became an archaeologist – and the Chinese guy in front of me was also a Computer Scientist in the wrong queue. We became friends and I spent most of my university life mixing with the Chinese community – so I became quite familiar with lunar new year celebrations, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating sometimes because it’s a very family oriented time, and it reminds me that my family are over 5,000 miles away.

I read in a Korean newspaper that 15 million people here are going home for ‘설날’ [Seolnal/Seollal – the Lunar New Year], and it reminds me that – as a foreigner in Korea, married to a Korean – I’m spending my holidays with someone else’s family. Actually, my mother is over 70 now and she’s beginning to think that if I go back every two years she might only see me another three or four times. That’s hard to hear – and I think of that a lot now when we have these regular Korean family gatherings.

But you have to choose to live in one country or the other, and Lunar New Year isn’t as bad as Christmas because it’s just a normal working day in England – I’m not missing out on gift-giving or anything like that. Actually in Korea, 설날 gifts are one of the strange things that I didn’t expect.


It’s not that I didn’t expect people to be giving each other gifts, but it’s the type of gifts. For example, before 설날 a couple of years ago, a huge amount of frozen fish turned up in a box at our mother-in-law’s apartment, so it’s not quite like Christmas in England, where you’d never give someone fish or fruit. But in some ways the strangest gifts are the ones in the stores, I have to admit that I find them quite bizarre sometimes.

Part of it is a cultural thing. Here I see big gift boxes of SPAM for example, and in England SPAM was traditionally viewed as a rather low-class meat product. I suppose you might describe it as ubiquitous – but not everything which is ubiquitous is good – the ‘flu virus is ubiquitous but it doesn’t mean you want to have it. [I admit – I’m sick of hearing the popular Korean-English marketing word ‘ubiquitous’ here and now I’m just getting my own back.] In fact, one of the reasons junk email is called spam is because of a British comedy sketch [Monty Python of course - video] which just repeats the word “spam” over and over annoyingly. So you don’t buy people gift boxes of SPAM in England. The other gift that really sticks in my mind is the bulk anti-calculus [you read that right] toothpaste box. If someone bought me toothpaste for a gift, I might think it meant my breath smells.

Various Lunar New Years

One Lunar New Year here, we had a very long day. We started out with the special New Year’s breakfast of rice soup (떡국) – I was told it was at this point my Korean age advanced by one year. I find this whole business of lunar ages really confusing as well, and Korean ages always seem to make me older than I actually am and that’s just not good news, is it? Then we went out, and even though I’d read foreigners warning each other to stock up on food before 설날 because all the shops would be shut, I still found the fact that all the stores really were closed surprising, considering how everything’s open every other day of the year. It really tells you what a big event it is. Anyway, we went out to hike up a mountain to a series of temples to make offerings. As a non-Buddhist, visiting temples is an interesting experience, but it’s not a religious obligation for me, although I seem to end up participating in the rituals, which is quite strange.

After visiting the temples, usually there’s some time then before the family gathering in the evening, although one year we spent the afternoon with my mother-in-law’s sister. She’s a Buddhist fortune teller so I call her my ‘psychic aunt’. She performed some Buddhist new year rituals, including chanting in front of the shrine in her house. It was quite beautiful actually. And then she read our fortunes, which was quite frightening in a way because – apparently – she is very, very good. Even though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve heard enough to not completely dismiss the power of her fortune telling.


So my mother-in-law usually hosts the family gatherings in the evening, which means my wife often helps her mother prepare food – and I don’t – so I feel like I’ve slipped into a typical Korean husband’s role sometimes. Of course, we have all the big bows to go through to show respect to our elders, and the money gifts along with the ‘imparting of wisdom’ speech or ‘advice’ afterwards, which is quite strange when you’re in your thirties. Nothing quite like that happens in England, although I guess parents still lecture you – it’s just that there’s not a specific date they do it on.

I think there can be a general atmosphere of tension on 설날, especially in our mixed Christian and Buddhist family. My wife’s uncle, who’s a Christian pastor, said he tries to celebrate 설날 is a ‘Christian way’, but I’m not sure what that means. I’ve also leaned though how food can really bring people of different backgrounds together over the dinner table. Of course, food is so important in Korea, so I soon discovered that on the 15th day after the start of the new year there’s another special breakfast for Jeongwol Daeboreum (정월대보름), and a special festival - ‘The Burning of the Moon House’ - 달집태우기 – on Dadaepo Beach here in Busan.

The Burning of the Moon House and Audience

I went to the Burning of the Moon House last year. I understood that the 15th day is traditionally when evil spirits are cast out. I find it odd though that the new beginning can’t just begin on the first day like it does with a Western new year.

I gathered that it’s important that the bonfire burns all the way through, because if it does this indicates a good harvest, and if it doesn’t then there won’t be one. But maybe that makes people a little too enthusiastic about designing them to burn ferociously. We weren’t that close to the fire, but before long burning ash and rubbish started falling quite heavily on us, and the organisers were rather urgently shouting over the speakers “Move away! Move away!” It was quite chaotic but it certainly did help chase me away – so I guess it really does cast out evil spirits.

Busan e-FM
Inside Out Busan

Air date: 2011-02-02 @ ~19:30

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